The Top Ten Films of 2012:
It has been a great year for film. It’s been so great, in fact, that I bet there’s at least ten more films out there I haven’t seen yet that could easily make this list – maybe The Impossible, Amour, Holy Motors, or The Sessions? I’m not a full time critic, obviously, but I do have access to a lot of pre-release films through my work. So there are some films on this list that haven’t opened wide just yet. I urge you to check them out when they do. I’ll start with five honorable mentions – films that either just missed my Top Ten, weren’t exactly features, or were strong enough in stretches to warrant inclusion.
Director Joe Wright let his freak flag fly with Hanna, a truly berserk action film about a preteen assassin. He brings his newfound weirdness to an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” He thrillingly stages the action as if the characters were players on a stage, with flats flying in and out, actors traveling through the wings and the trusses of the theater. The visual potency lets the potentially stuffy material breathe – Keira Knightley as the adulterous Anna and especially Jude Law as her put-upon husband are great.
Four-Sixths of Cloud Atlas
The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker shared directing duties on these six loosely interconnected stories, where major actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and the excellent Hugo Weaving wear incredibly distracting prosthetics to cross race and gender barriers as different characters at different points in history. And yet, the plots set in the far past and the far future work like gangbusters. The tangents involving nuclear intrigue in the 1970s and a publisher wrongly incarcerated in an old age home in the present day – not so much. But you’ve gotta admire the chutzpah and artistic risk-taking on display in most of Cloud Atlas.
The First Two Hours of Django Unchained
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s follow up to his brilliant, brutal revisionist World War II flick Inglourious Basterds, shares much of that film’s subversive, blackly humorous DNA. By the time Django (the smoldering Jamie Foxx) and his bounty hunter buddy Dr. Schultz (the impish Christoph Waltz) infiltrate a plantation run by a petulant savage (Leonardo DiCaprio, smashingly villainous) and a devious house slave (brilliantly loathsome Samuel L. Jackson), the four have a tense dinner date as spine-tingling and suspenseful as anything the director has done before. That the end of Django drags us through 40 minutes of lifeless shootouts and a particularly painful cameo by Tarantino himself shouldn’t diminish the excellent first 2/3 of the film.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
Cult animator Don Hertzfeldt, he of Rejected fame (“my spoon’s too big!”), completed the Lord of the Rings of black and white stick figure trilogies this year with It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Presented theatrically with its first two parts Everything Will Be Ok and I am So Proud of You, It’s a Beautiful Day tells the story of Bill, a stick figure ravaged by an unnamed physical malady and a family history of mental illness. At turns blackly comic and existentially trippy, the trilogy also manages to wring an incredible amount of pathos out of Bill’s situation. The denoument of It’s a Beautiful Day is five of the most compelling minutes of cinema, stick-figured or not, released in 2012.
In addition to directing some of the more memorable episodes of Breaking Bad, director Rian Johnson had helmed on of my favorite indie-flicks of recent years – the hyper verbal Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a high-school aged gumshoe. Johnson takes a huge leap forward with Looper, a brilliantly inventive time-travel action flick starring Levitt as an assassin tasked with killing a time-traveling version of… himself, played by Bruce Willis. The film has the knotty plotting of classic time-travel films, impressively mounted action sequences and a disarming amount of pathos. If he keeps making intelligent action films like Looper, Johnson could be our next Christopher Nolan.
The Top Ten:
Director Ron Fricke lives in a very specific niche – after shooting the groundbreaking, Philip Glass scored Koyaanisqatsi and directing the gorgeous, wordless travelogue Baraka, Fricke is back with that film’s unofficial follow-up, Samsara. Like Baraka, Samsara is a dialogue-free travelogue featuring art and rituals from dozens of cultures and nations. Samsara is just as visually acute as the director’s previous work – indeed, his eye-popping signature timelapses have improved with technology – and its thematic content is actually stronger. Samsara is defiantly environmentalist and anti-war, but it also raises troubling issues of dehumanization – whether its stunning footage of radically advanced humanoid robots, the mechanization of our food chain, or heartbreaking images of objectified women. Yes, Samsara will inspire as many visual artists as its predecessors, but there are valuable lessons beneath the film’s stunning images.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
Even if The Dark Knight Rises is the least successful of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters – its plotting and pacing are certainly dodgy in spots – it’s certainly his most fascinating. It’s the kind of balls-out, highly idiosyncratic blockbuster only someone with the cultural and financial cache that Nolan has amassed could possibly create, and thank God for it. If Batman Begins tackled anxiety, and The Dark Knight explored terror, The Dark Knight Rises examines nothing less than war, subjugation, and the tenuous grasp civilization has over chaos. By turning Gotham City into a failed state under the military dictatorship of Bane (Tom Hardy, using his body and eyes brilliantly), Nolan toys with what may happen when a vacuum replaces societal structure. (It is not a pure indictment of the Occupy movement, as some of the film’s more liberal critics have claimed). And yet, for all the worthy discussion its prompted, The Dark Knight Rises also works spectacularly as a blitzkrieg blockbuster, with mind-bogglingly well-executed mayhem throughout, and terrific acting all-around – Christian Bale gives his fullest performance yet as Bruce Wayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shines as an honest cop fighting the system, and Anne Hathaway steals the show as a “cat” burglar with a conflicted conscience.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
Though it is nominally set in the same world, Zero Dark Thirty couldn’t be more different than director Katherine Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s previous collaboration, the classic, Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. The gritty realism, tense editing and handheld camera work give the films similar visual DNA, but whereas The Hurt Locker was a series of high-tension action sequences, Zero Dark Thirty is an epic procedural about the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The film teems at the edges with information, kind of like a terrorism-age All The Presidents’ Men, with a singularly focused CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) at the center of the investigation. The film spans years and many countries, raises troubling questions about the use of torture in interrogation, and sheds light on the bureaucratic nightmare of waging a covert operation deep behind enemy lines. Zero Dark Thirty is a slow burn punctuated by sickening bursts of violence, culminating in a recreation of the famous raid on Bin Laden’s compound. Filmed by shadow of night and through the night-vision POV of Seal Team Six, Bigelow’s chops as an action director have never been stronger – by draining the sensationalism out of the raid, and allowing it to unfold in what feels like real time, the director puts us right there on that fateful night when one of America’s most ghostly archenemies became just a man in his pajamas, finally brought to justice.
7. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell has always been a bit of a manic filmmaker, so take it with a grain of salt when I say that Silver Linings Playbook is his most controlled film to date. Russell’s antic streak led to the hilarious adoption comedy Flirting With Disaster and the Gulf War action satire Three Kings (one of my favorite films of the 90s), but it also led to the histrionic The Fighter and the director almost punching Lily Tomlin in the face on the set of I Heart Huckabees. And though Silver Linings Playbook has plenty of Russell’s screwball intensity – it is a film about a manic-depressive, after all – it is also his most conventionally satisfying movie. And that’s a good thing. Bradley Cooper, in an impressive dramatic lead performance, plays a character recently released from an asylum and pines desperately for his ex-wife. Jennifer Lawrence, in a brilliant turn, plays a young widow who promises to help Cooper’s character rebuild his relationship with his wife, so long as he helps her win a ballroom dancing competition. The two have a zany kind of chemistry, but the film’s tension isn’t just will-they won’t-they – we also wonder if they’ll be able to fight off their respective mania and depression long enough to see that they’re right for each other. Silver Linings Playbook builds to a pat but wholly satisfying conclusion, a mainstream romantic comedy with the perfect amount of Russell’s trademark high-energy neurosis.
6. Life of Pi
It’s a bit tough for me to place Life of Pi on this list because there are some long stretches of the film – namely the first twenty minutes – that didn’t work for me at all. The film is awkwardly framed by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan is excellent in the thankless role) telling his life story to a writer (Rafe Spall) – the film essentially doubles down on early exposition, having Pi tell his story to the writer and narrate the action on screen. Its over-explained New Age hokum. But once the film gets to its centerpiece, a horrifying shipwreck followed by young Pi (Suraj Sharma, very affecting) trying to coexist on a life raft with a tiger named Richard Parker, it surges to life. They say of filmmaking – never work with kids, animals or water. Director Ang Lee pulls the trifecta, brilliantly. The relationship between Richard Parker (a dazzling mix of live action and CGI) and Pi is totally believable – the film never makes the tiger anything less than a meat eating danger – and in the end quite touching. There are also hallucinatory elements like a sperm whale leaping through a bioluminescent ocean and a flock of flying fish attacking the boat, all rendered in brilliantly effective 3D. The conclusion of Life of Pi isn’t as strained as its first act, but the theme of the film ends up both confused and a bit too pat. But the middle hour of Life of Pi is the greatest artistic and technical accomplishment of 2012.
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit is largely considered a disappointment, and not just for its reportedly garish, distracting High-Frame-Rate 3-D (which I have not seen). Apparently people find the film too long, too slow, too minor in comparison to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But as an admitted super-fan of the Lord of the Rings films, and as someone who hasn’t read The Hobbit since elementary school and doesn’t know what’s added “padding” and what isn’t, all I can say is that I was delighted to be back in Peter Jackson’s lush Middle Earth, and was not bored for a moment. Yes, some stretches on repeat viewing strike me as fans-only catnip, especially an early extraneous scene featuring Elijah Wood as Frodo. And yes, the main plot about 13 dwarves trying to reclaim their kingdom from the gold-hungry dragon Smaug is writ much smaller than the apocalyptic Rings films. But damn, if the film doesn’t hum with the same generous spirit, technical accomplishment and artistic fluidity as the trilogy. Peter Jackson’s eye for stunning vistas and sense of rhythm in the film’s many action sequences are as spot-on as ever. Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as the dwarf leader Thorin make strong additions to Middle Earth, and the riddle game with Gollum (again flawlessly rendered by Andy Serkis) is the film’s highlight. By the time our heroes were looking forth to the Lonely Mountain and their date with the dragon, I was absolutely ready for another installment. Call me blind in my fandom of this series, but I think Jackson and company are just warming up with An Unexpected Journey.
A newly re-elected President combating a stubborn and divided Congress to pass important legislation – sound familiar? There’s something oddly comforting about the parallels to modern American politics in Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, the director’s strongest live action film since 2005’s Munich. It shows us, following Tony Kushner’s immaculately researched script, that bickering and divisiveness has been in the American government’s DNA since its inception, and that such a combative system can create real progress. But Lincoln isn’t the stuffy, talky drama that its few detractors claim. Though Speilberg shies away from the battles of the Civil War and focuses mainly on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, there is plenty of narrative action to be had here. Lincoln, above all, is a massively entertaining film, full of wonderful dialogue, political brinksmanship and bribery, and an embarrassment of acting talent. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is already a modern classic. Sally Field as his wife Mary Todd supplies the film with its most personal, emotional moments. Tommy Lee Jones wins the audience award for his cantankerous, entertaining role as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. That’s not even mentioning David Straithairn, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gloria Reuben, Hal Holbrook and dozens of other character actors who simply nail their parts. And, despite a couple of overly sentimental hiccups at the beginning and end of the film, Speilberg does a sensational job orchestrating the proceedings, allowing the writing and acting to carry the day. Lincoln is the 21st century’s answer to Inherit the Wind and 12 Angry Men, a civics lesson via popular entertainment that will endure for generations.
I haven’t met anyone who has disliked Argo – and with good reason. It’s just a damn good movie, and there’s really not much more to say about it. But making something that feels as effortless as Argo requires an enormous amount of talent, and Ben Affleck has clearly shown that with his third directorial effort. Stepping away from the back alleys of Boston where the shady types of Gone Baby Gone and The Town resided for the 1970s Iran hostage crisis, Affleck shows a brilliant gift for building tension around a global story on a very human scale. The source material, as interpreted by Chris Terrio’s whip-tight script, is fascinating – when six hostages escape the American embassy in Iran and take cover at the Canadian Ambassador’s home, the CIA must come up with a plan to get the hostages out of Iran. Tony Mendez’ (Ben Affleck) idea? Pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a D-grade knock-off of Star Wars, have the hostages pose as crew, and escape Iran. In order to appear legit, the CIA arranges for a real Hollywood production office to open, with a real script, real producers and real ads in Variety. Argo is part global suspense film, part Hollywood comedy (Alan Arkin and John Goodman have great fun as the producers of the fake film). The hare-brained scheme to spring the hostages generates white-knuckle tension as the hostages hide in plain view as a fake Hollywood crew scouting in an Iranian market. The great joke of the film is that no one really understands weird Hollywood types, and yet are mesmerized by them. As the hostages try to flee the airport, and one of them steps up to security and dazzles them with storyboards from the fake film “Argo,” we fear for our heroes but also recognize the humanity in their captors – who, even radical Iranians, doesn’t like a good sci-fi film?
2. The Master
Has there been a recent film more divisive than The Master? I know a fair share of critics and film fans that think its some sort of weird masterpiece. Others think it’s a load of hooey, the first real misstep from revered auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. I obviously fall in the former category, but I can see why some have a problem with the film – if anything it’s even more austere than There Will Be Blood, and without a “I drink your milkshake!” moment to stick in the mind. In fact, the film is more tonally comparable to Anderson’s other divisive film, Punch-Drunk Love, that wild, trippy meta Adam Sandler film. The one indisputable aspect of The Master is its impeccable production, from Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography to Mark Bridges’ costumes to Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s haunting score. For those willing to follow a film that absolutely doesn’t hold your hand, there’s an endlessly fascinating depth to The Master. Freddie Quell (a genius, animalistic Joaquin Phoenix) leaves World War II adrift, led by the nose by his raging id with only his eye for photograpy and his nose for making and selling blackout enducing moonshine keeping him off the street. Lancaster Dodd, a spiritual guru with more than a little in common with L. Ron Hubbard, adopts Freddie into his movement – using him as a body guard, a student, and a guinea pig. Dodd is played with theatrical bravado and stormy mood swings by Philip Seymour Hoffman in what might be the performance of his already staggering career. There are other colorful supporting turns here, particularly Amy Adams as Dodd’s conservative wife and Laura Dern as a worshipful follower, but this is really Phoenix and Hoffman’s show. A scene early in the film, where Dodd psychologically profiles Quell, forcing him to answer increasingly personal questions without blinking, is the most mesmerising display of acting I saw in 2012. The narrative in The Master is episodic and difficult. Throughout, the characters represent the damaged id and the controlling superego of the post-war American male, colliding and finally diverging. The final scene between Master and Student, if you are attuned to the film’s peculiar rhythm, is both heartbreaking and goosebump enducing. The Master will stand the test of time, as more and more people dig deep into the film and its troubling, fascinating psychology.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a miracle. It’s a miracle because, on a shoe-string budget, director Benh Zeitlin and his production team built the year’s most thrillingly alive, unique location in “the Bathtub,” a community south of New Orleans so poverty stricken that it seems to belong to a different civilization entirely. It’s a miracle because using non-professional actors, they crafted the year’s most touching story of familial love – Quvenzhane Wallis as the 6-year old Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her loving but ill father Wink bond beautifully on screen. It’s a miracle because as even indie films become more homogenized, here is a movie that’s uttery, completely original – a humanistic Terry Gilliam film, a southern-inflected “Where the Wild Things Are,” an environmentalist fable for kids of all ages. When “the storm” hits, Hushpuppy, her Daddy, and the residents of the Bathtub are sent adrift, floating on boats and buildings crafted from the deritus of civilization. Ancient creatures are set loose from the unfreezing ice-caps and are on a collision course with our heroes (music video wizard Ray Tintori created the titualar beasts). When the familiar forces of civilization finally do show up and force the residents to evacuate to a conventional shelter, the sight of these characters in an antiseptic government building is somehow more surreal than the hallucinatory world of the Bathtub. But all this artistic creativity would be moot without an emotional center, and Hushpuppy’s search for the mother that abandoned her and the child’s growing apreciation for her father touched me like no other film this year. Yes, Wallis was six years old when they filmed the movie, and Dwight Henry is reportedly more interested in running his family’s bakery than professional acting – but a scene late in the film when the two reunite alone merits serious awards consideration for both of them. For his unwavering, idiosyncratic vision, the nearly Herzogian degree of difficulty in filming in these locations, and his ability to reap masterful performances from non-professional actors, director Behn Zeitlin has risen to the top of the heap for young directors to watch – after creating the best film of 2012, I can’t wait to see what he and his team do next.